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Mike Mills

The designer, artist and film director talks about his new movie, the complexities of grieving and his love for the unexpected.

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Mike Mills

When my family brought home a Jack Russell Terrier puppy, it had a more profound effect on my life than anything else that came before it (the arrival of my brother and sister excepted, perhaps!). Suddenly, there was this gentle, spirited creature living among us, playing with us, making us laugh, loving us.

Mike Mills is an artist who lives in California. We are all familiar with his work, even if we don’t realise it. His gentle, disarmingly honest sensibilities have been applied to many things that have become bedrocks of popular culture, including work for Sonic Youth, X-Girl, Supreme, Air (who even named a song after him) and the Beastie Boys. His most recent work is a feature film entitled Beginners, an autobiographical work based around the last years of his father’s life. One of the central characters is a Jack Russell. It seems too good to be true. I was fortunate enough to speak with Mike one morning recently. He seems like a really lovely man.

With any creative work, there’s always a picture in your head, and then the finished product. A film would be an extreme example, in that it has all these different inputs, that it would always become something very different – is that right?
Even when I’m drawing, I try to leave a lot of room for surprise. The older I get, I don’t like it when things work out as I planned, because that means something more interesting didn’t get to evolve. Films are for sure that way, not just because there’s so many people involved, but also because they take so long, a lot of things just come up that you didn’t expect or you grow and see things differently, so in that way the project changes from your initial conception. All that’s pretty exciting. Maybe also from doing documentaries, I really love surprise and the unexpected and the unplanned and I try to accept that as much as I can.

You’ve talked about the manic, fireworks time of mourning and how it’s such a valuable time. It made me think of how I feel like when I’m travelling, like being so engaged.
It is like travelling because a lot of times during grief, all the assumptions that we normally just blindly, unconsciously assume that sew our world together, they all become unsewn. So, like travelling to a place with a different language or different customs or a layout you can’t figure out, your home becomes very foreign all of a sudden. Everything looks very new or strange and doesn’t make sense and that can be upsetting and that’s part of why things are so confusing and chaotic in an unhappy way, but it does also sort of break you apart or make you more able to change.

Maybe it’s because all those things aren’t piled up on you anymore, so you don’t have to process things through that way that you’ve learnt.

I think in our normal lives we learn not to process, we just blindly go through, but when you’re in grief, even the house doesn’t make sense anymore, like ‘what the hell are these boxes we live in?’ like all the simplest assumptions just fall apart.

I guess it’s not something you’d wish on anyone, but…
Yeah! It would be really false to portray it as some easy, transcendent time, and while you’re in it, you’re also cursing it, but looking back you can see that it really did enable a new perspective.

The fact that it’s done that shows that it has a good side, like any experience I guess. So, your new film Beginners stars a Jack Russell!
Yeah, played by a canine actor named Cosmo, who comes with a wonderful trainer named Mathilde.

Why did you paint Cosmo with brown spots?
He’s all white, and when you see him all white you wonder if he’s a Jack Russell or not. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an all white Jack Russell. And Cosmo might not be 100% Jack Russell, though he fully acts it. But I really wanted Cosmo, he was like the best dog I had met, he has a really specific personality. He’s in every scene, he’s super important and his soul was more important than anything, but, I showed pictures of him to people and they were asking me ‘is he a Jack Russell’ and it was confusing everybody. When you see the movie, one of my favourite scenes is this whole history of Jack Russells, and that they came from this guy named John Russell. It was a key scene for me, so I thought we have to work this out. I don’t take dyeing a dog’s hair lightly, and the last thing I want is to make a dog suffer in any way, so we talked about it and we researched it, and he was dyed with vegetable dyes and they don’t dye around the eyes, they put that on later with a little brush. And just knowing Jack Russells and feeling more comfortable with Mathilde and Cosmo, I thought well I might not do this to a Chihuaha or a Shih-tzu, but a Jack can take it.

Oh yeah, they’re tough.
It’s not going to hurt him. So when we dyed him, we did these very classic Jack Russell spots, which did end up making him look a lot like my dad’s dog, but that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to make the storytelling easy.

Put him in costume, so to speak.
Yeah, to have no question that he’s a Jack Russell.

Did your family have a Jack Russell when you were growing up?
Yeah. In the story, Oliver inherits his dad’s Jack Russell, which did happen to me, and in the story, the dog has separation anxiety, howls and creates this thing where Oliver has to take him everywhere. I didn’t get that from my dad’s dog, but I have a Border Collie mutt, and when she was a puppy, she would just scream like someone was murdering her, so I ended up taking her everywhere with me. But my dad did have a 13-year-old Jack Russell when he passed away and I inherited him, so that’s how he got into the film.

I liked the way you presented the character, with the soulful looks, like what do they mean? You can project a lot onto that, but you don’t know how much of it is deep feelings and how much is just waiting to be fed or be shown what to do next.
That’s very true, especially true when it’s your dad’s dog you inherited. Sort of like this little ghost walking around. Oliver does play with talking to the dog and plays with the dog’s response, but he’s well aware that dogs don’t talk and wouldn’t want to anthropomorphosise a dog in that way. I was trying very much to understand the dog as something very different, but equal to him.

My dog Tess seems to understand things a lot more clearly than people, a lot of the time.
I feel like their intelligence is very different to ours. It’s more through the nose, or linked to different instincts. I think it’s very presumptuous to think of them as ‘less than’ rather than ‘other than’, you know.

It’s funny to think about it that way, because it’s kind of like how we project ourselves with other people, guessing what they’re thinking.
You’re right, and dogs definitely promote that tendency we all have, because they’re very deeply mysterious. Even Zoe, I’ve lived with her for ten years and the truth is, I’ll never know quite what’s going on in her mind or how she’s processing me. It’s a weird way to live with the unknown.

You know that rejoicing they do when you come home? It’s such a lovely thing. They’re so relieved.
My dad said a beautiful thing when he came out to me, and his Jack Russell Terrier was with us on the couch and we were both talking and petting him and he said, “See? This is all I want. If humans treated each other like dogs, we’d all be in such a better place”. Like you see a stranger dog on the street you go up and pet him or a dog comes up to you and rubs himself on your legs or whatever, there is so much less judgement and hostility in lots of ways, and we should all just go around petting each other like we pet dogs. So a lot of the dog stuff I definitely inherited from my dad. It was a big way that he practiced his emotional life.

One of my favourite things to do is take my dog for a walk.
Zoe loves the ball more than anything, she’s a ball nut, so three or four times a day we’ll throw the ball in the backyard. We’ll go for walks in the neighbourhood, but there’s a big park here in LA called Griffith Park where I can get her off leash. I have a place up in the mountains, in the Sierra’s, it’s very wild, like 60 acres that borders on forest roads, so we’ll cruise around there. That’s when she fully turns on, like we’re walking over coyote trails, deer tracks and bear tracks and she’s fully alive.

It makes you feel more alive too, when they get in that zone.
We get really coordinated with each other. She totally listens to me while we’re out in the forest, she’s out there scouting around, but she’s very attentive. I’ve noticed that if I sit down, she’ll sit down and look in the other direction, she’ll sit with her back to me and sort of keep guard in that direction.

Does Zoe ever hunt or kill things?
She’s gotten a couple of squirrels in the backyard. Like as she’s playing fetch, she’ll detour and often nail a squirrel. She’s gotten them twice in ten years, but she’s been hunting them the whole time, so the squirrels are probably pretty psyched. They’ll come up and mock her from the window, you know, make that weird sound. I think like most Border Collies, Zoe hates doing anything wrong. If she ever does do something wrong, she bolts out of the door and I say “Zoe, come back!” She likes to be right and the best and to win, she doesn’t like to be wrong or be told she’s wrong.

Is it a fear of being chastised, or is it just wanting to be right?
Wanting to be right. Because I never chastise her that hard, she just wants to be the best, like number one. And if she did something wrong, that would mean she’s number two, and she doesn’t like that.

She’s so consistent.
Oh yeah. That’s a very long line of breeding, so her genes are very strong. A lot of their behaviour really is wolf behaviour modified, so I feel like in a way they are very close to the dog origin, and they’re very strong willed, very specific personalities. And I think Zoe in particular, she’s the only dog in the house, and I think she thinks the house is for her, she’s the centre and me and my wife are part of her pack, and she likes being the A student.

I sometimes think my dog thinks she’s the leader of our pack.
I think I’m definitely the leader and Zoe knows that. I’ve had her since she was 8 weeks old, so I think she really gets bummed if she thinks I’m not happy with her, she doesn’t want to be in that position. But maybe because she’s a herder, she really likes it when we’re all together, and sometimes that is her job. When I sleep in bed, my wife’s on one side, I’m in the middle and Zoe’s just wedged against me on the other side. I really get the sense that that’s when she’s the most happy, because we’re all in the bed, we’re all together, and she’s making sure we’re all wedged into a group and life is good.

I was going to ask about the bed thing but I thought that would be impolite.
I have no embarrassment about it. I mean one of the best things about my life is sleeping in between my two girls.


To find out more about Mike Mill’s work visit mikemillsweb.com/
For more information about Beginners, click here


Images courtesy of Mike Mills
Portraits of Mike and Zoe courtesy of Todd Cole
Stills courtesy of FocusFeatures/HopscotchFilms

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